UC Berkeley researchers show embarrassment can be beneficial

The embarrassment from running into a closed glass door or tripping on a crowded street is not something to feel bad about, according to a new study from three UC Berkeley researchers.

According to the research, which was published Sept. 19 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, those who experience more embarrassment tend to be more generous, trustworthy and even monogamous.

Through a series of experiments designed to gauge embarrassment, UC Berkeley assistant sociology professor Robb Willer, psychology professor Dacher Keltner and Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student of psychology, found that embarrassment serves vital social functions, projecting a trustworthy and reliable personality.

“The research suggests that embarrassment is not a bad thing,” Feinberg, lead author of the study, said in an email. “While it may feel uncomfortable and extreme levels can be problematic, everyday expressions of embarrassment are part of the social fabric.”

The research distinguished between the separate emotions of embarrassment and shame, which are often mistaken for each other.

For the research, psychologists conducted experiments in which participants interacted with a trained actor who either showed pride or embarrassment in response to an accomplishment.

The subjects then engaged in exercises from which the researchers gauged their trust in the actor. According to the study, subjects tended to trust the actor more if he had shown signs of embarrassment, leading to the conclusion that individuals who are more likely to be embarrassed may prove to be more reliable and cooperative.

In another of the study’s experiments, 60 college students were videotaped as they recounted their most embarrassing moments. Subjects then performed exercises to measure generosity, such as “dictator games” in which the subject was given 10 raffle tickets and told to keep some and give the rest away.

The research indicated that the subjects who had shown higher levels of embarrassment typically were more generous in giving away their tickets.

“Embarrassment helps people get information on one another’s character and reliability,” Feinberg said in the email. “And expressing embarrassment in situations is one way we can signal to others that we can be relied upon.”

A tendency for monogamy was indicated through a questionnaire that gauged subjects’ generous and cooperative tendencies. According to Feinberg, embarrassment and monogamy were positively correlated.

“The study offers practical advice for people who are looking to partner with trustworthy others in their personal or professional lives,” Feinberg said in the email.  “Someone who never gets flustered might not be as reliable a person to work and cooperate with than someone who does get embarrassed.”

The results of the study could have  important implications, potentially  providing insight into the correlation between embarrassment and valued character traits, such as trustworthiness, reliability, generosity and cooperation, according Feinberg.

“The research team is top-notch and that the research that Dacher Keltner has done in the past has always made a strong and important contribution to the field,” said Ann Kring, UC Berkeley professor of psychology in an email. “He is the world’s leading expert in embarrassment.”